Sunday, December 28, 2014
Getting On is a six part HBO series aired in November and December 2014. Designed as a sit-com, the half-hour programs take place in a hospital and, almost exclusively, confined to a ward devoted to the hospice care of terminally ill women. Getting On is based on a British sit-com with a similar premise and it treads territory pioneered by Robert Altman's Mash: the characters jest and engage in love affairs to keep up their spirits in the face of tragic chaos. Patients die and there are too many of them to be provided adequate care and each episode presents a series of crises -- the power fails, the air-conditioning won't work, love affairs come unstrung, computerized records are unavailable, doctors and nurses make fatal, and near-fatal errors. Everyone does their best to soldier through the on-going chaos and the mantra seems to be "Stay Calm and do your Duty." Each show features one or more cringe-inducing and grisly medical procedures -- a naso-gastric tube is installed in a writhing cancer patient, a surgeon prepares to excise a squamous cell carcinoma wearing what looks like a welding face-mask, veins can't be located to insert IVs and so on. All of this is vividly presented to the point that I had to look away from the screen from time to time. The dialogue is suitably ribald and vulgar. People familiar with the medical profession and large hospitals in general tells me that the show is highly realistic, if stylized: the doctors are suitably pompous, callous, and they speak with the soft courtly (and completely fraudulent) manner that I have heard Mayo Clinic doctors often employ -- their soothing voices seethe with rage and they seem always on the verge of hysteria. The nurses are harried, rude, and aggressive. The hospital's accountants, lawyers, and administrators are suitably smarmy. In one scene, a patient care conference is convened with about a half-dozen doctors. The patient is clearly dying but not one of the physicians dares to speak the truth and each of them suggests increasingly surreal, and improbable, surgical interventions for their moribund patient. The entire system shown in this series is devoted to death and dying and, yet, no one dares speak the word. At various moments, the program betrays its U. K. origins -- the Brits seem to think doddering old women, particularly if played by men in drag, are intrinsically funny (cf. any episode of Monty Python); this is a taste not shared by most Americans. There is lots of scatological humor, toilet comedy of the kind that English audiences enjoy -- one of the doctors specializes in a taxonomy of shit; she has defined "seven kinds of stool" and makes lengthy speeches about female fecal incontinence. This physician is eccentric, operating her ever-expanding empire of hospice beds in order to finance with her fees an elaborate research program involving hundreds of lab mice. The research with the lab mice is like something implemented on the island of Dr. Moreau and the characters obsessions fit within a broad mainstream of British comedy dating back to Uncle Toby in Sterne's Tristram Shandy and before. The show is gripping and spectacularly well-acted and, of course, the subject matter has the kind of calamitous appeal of a gory car-crash -- you can't exactly look away although there is something indecent about watching as well. The actors all look like real people but, curiously, also are familiar -- you have seen them before and they are englobed by a faint aura of star-charisma notwithstanding their dowdy appearance in this show. The principal characters are played people that you recognize, but you don't know their names and can't quite identify where it was that you last saw them. Alex Borstein and Laurie Metcalf are particularly effective as the head nurse, Dawn, and the eccentric, feces-obsessed physician, Dr. Jenna James. Borstein in particular is a plain-Jane who seems highly intelligent; she gives the effect of always biting her tongue to avoid saying something recriminatory and insulting to the fools around her and this stubby, squat little actress is one of those rare performers who always seems to be thinking, plotting, intelligently contriving. even, designing the plot in which she is acting. Laurie Metcalf is convincingly strange, obsessive, and her Dr. James is oddly capable, also, a persuasive portrait of a highly intelligent, if peculiar, woman. The minor characters, including the intransigent and sometimes foul-mouthed, old women are similarly effective. Getting On is available on HBO-to-go and on-demand for the next month or so. It is a reminder of a truism -- the best film making today is on cable-TV.